“White Slavery in the Northwoods” describes major WI & MI 19th cen. sex trafficking scandal


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I’m pleased to share that my article, White Slavery in the Northwoods: Early U.S. Anti-Sex Trafficking and its Continuing Relevance to Trafficking Reform, has been accepted for publication in the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law.  It will appear in a special issue in 2016 but it’s available now on SSRN.

This article is rather special to me as the subject and research have been of enduring interest to me for many years.  In fact, the topic is an extension of my very first article (my undergrad history thesis) on the history of prostitution in Eau Claire.

This new article explains how the lumber and mining camps of Northern Wisconsin and Michigan became the center of a major sex trafficking (aka “white slavery”) scandal in the late nineteenth-century.  It’s got virgins and villains, armed guards and attack dogs, yellow journalism, lies and political finger pointing, an amazingly strong heroine, and, of course, plenty of sex scandal.

It’s a truly fascinating story – one that could be, and in fact has, been the subject of an award-winning Hollywood screen play.  But it also has enduring impact as many of the strategies that these nineteenth century anti-traffickers originated to achieve law reform are still used today – strategies that were as dubious then as they are now.

Here’s the abstract:

This article provides a unique and comprehensive analysis of the first U.S. anti-sex trafficking movement and its continuing impact on trafficking reform today. It explores the significant, yet little known campaign against the trade of young, white women, a practice called “white slavery,” which emerged in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and Michigan in the 1880s. It examines the strategies developed by these late nineteenth-century activists, specifically the use of exaggeration and sensationalism, and demonstrates how trafficking reformers are still using these techniques today despite their dubious authority and effectiveness.

Part I will consider why the Northwoods became a focal point for white slavery in the nineteenth-century, specifically exploring the impact of the economic, demographic, and social changes occurring in the region at that time, as well as the role of the burgeoning mass media. It will also examine the escalating nature of the Northwoods white slavery allegations and the public outcry that they caused. Next, it will study the strategies developed by anti-trafficking activists, specifically the use of exaggeration and sensationalism to garner support. Finally, it will investigate Wisconsin’s and Michigan’s responses to white slavery and consider why this nineteenth-century campaign failed to generate the level of national law reform achieved by later anti-trafficking movements.

Part II will attempt to glean some truth about the existence and extent of prostitution and sex trafficking in the Northwoods in the nineteenth-century, specifically acknowledging that many historians now believe that white slavery was a myth. It will conclude with a demonstration of how the exaggeration and sensationalism strategies developed by nineteenth-century anti-trafficking activists are still being used today and an inquiry into whether or not such techniques encourage effective law reform.

An earlier version of White Slavery in the Northwoods was awarded the 2014 Morris L. Cohen (Law) Student Essay Competition from the American Association of Law Libraries Legal History and Rare Books Special Interest Section.

I’d love to hear your comments on the article.  You can find my email address on my profile page.

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